An update about the France-Roma-Romania argument

Nicolae Gheorghe

Nicolae Gheorghe

This article was first published on the Economist’s website Eastern Approaches. It is worth looking at the Economist’s version of the article as it has been quite well edited, tightened up and de-personalised and made suitable for the Economist’s more anonymous style.  I intend to print out both versions and compare them as this will enable me to better understand the kind of article the Economist required (this was how I learned journalism 20 years ago: I would analyse articles I really admired and try and work out the style of the publication I was targeting. Easy.  Many years passed before I found out that you could actually study journalism. Back then I don’t think I ever met anyone who had.

Romania’s Roma Guru

I was recently asked by Romania’s top Roma “guru”, Nicolae Gheorghe, to edit a statement for a conference the European Commission was organising in Bucharest. The conference was taking place in the politically charged atmosphere following Sarkozy’s expulsion of Roma migrants from French campsites.  Mr Gheorghe was worried that the French would use the Roma issue as an excuse to block Romania’s entry into the Schengen treaty, which is scheduled to take place in March 2011. A recent report in the EU Observer seemed to confirm his fears: France, and its new populist ally Holland, want to “delay the decision until Summer 2011”.

The theme of the Bucharest conference was the “Contribution of EU funds to the integration of Roma” and EC officials said they were coming to Romania “to listen”. It was the first public event since the expulsions that Roma leaders, Romanian government representatives and the EU were able to get together.

Although the conference went on for two days – and the lunch provided by the Intercontinental was excellent – there didn’t seem to be a lot of clarity when it came to the actual impact that EU funds have had on the Roma’s ongoing state of grinding poverty.  This is no great surprise considering that only about 1% of the 20 billion Euro  that has been allocated to Romania in EU Structural Funds has actually been spent. A thicket of red tape and incompetence at ministerial level blocks the rest. It also became clear that Romania’s government programmes for the Roma, such as positive discrimination for universities, hardly scratches the surface and the vast majority of Roma remain marginalised (i.e. they do not access public health, education and social services.)

However, there were two interesting outcomes from the Bucharest conference: Nicolae Gheorghe’s paper and an excellent piece of research by the World Bank which states  that the cost of educating the Roma (i.e. the cost of investing in schools and teachers, rather than marginalising them as happens now) would be far less than the contribution an educated Roma workforce would make to GNP.  The report concludes that “Compared to Roma with primary education, Roma who complete secondary education can expect to earn 144% more in Romania.”

The World Bank report presents an opportunity – invest in Romania’s future workforce – but the Romanian Government representatives (and the Roma leaders) seemed to miss the point amidst all the chatter about strategy, empowerment, consultation, rights, monitoring, community projects, exclusion, research, discrimination and poverty.

Nicolae Gheorghe, the former advisor to OSCE on Roma issues, believes that Romania isn’t taking responsibility for the Roma issue. The key part of his document reads:

“This is a Romanian problem, not a European one. ‘Getting rid of the gypsies’ has been part of the Romanian’s psyche since the deportations in WW2. The mass Roma migration since EU accession serves a similar purpose of getting Roma out of the community. This approach tolerates the idea of the Roma ‘becoming European’ on the assumption that the Roma will leave, the westerners will take on the burden and will then ‘understand our bitterness’. All this makes me worry. The Roma as an EU citizen is a subtle argument but the solution has to be found here, in Romania.”

Romania has come under considerable pressure from France, since the expulsions, to come up with a new strategy for the Roma. Mr Gheorghe warns against this:  “We need an effective system, a public administration that works for everyone.  If the Romanian social services would work according to its own laws it would be much more beneficial – for everyone – than any specific Roma strategy could be.  If they develop a new strategy it will probably be aimed at producing a few helpful headlines and as a bargaining chip in the Schengen deal. It is highly unlikely that a new Roma strategy would ever be implemented, if only because the institutional capacity to do so does not exist.” A summary of Mr Gheorghe’s viewpoint was published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free  section.

Mr Gheorghe’s also gives insight into the story of Roma migration. He says that when small numbers of Roma migrants started to appear in French and Italian municipalities there was initially some sympathy for them, particularly among left wing mayors who were willing to make an effort at integrating these newcomers by making available educational, health, housing and social services.

But two factors changed this: a flood of new Roma migrants broke down the initial sympathy that had existed; and orders from Paris to crack down on Roma migrants.  The crackdown on the Roma started in 2005 when France’s former Minister of Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, ordered his prefects to take a “firm approach towards semi-sedentary settlements that settle mostly on the outskirts of cities. I do not want the state to remain passive in the face of situations that the French do not accept.”  Sarkozy added that Prefects should “Feel free to ask the police and gendarmerie to commit the necessary resources.”

Sarkozy took a beating by the international press about the Roma expulsions issue and the attempt to lift his poll ratings by appealing to French populism fell flat. But the issue hasn’t gone away. While “voluntary” repatriations continue, many of the “returnees” simply turn round and go back to France. (I twice went to the village of Barbulesti, near Bucharest, to meet some of the Roma returnees but the local mayor told me “they have all gone back to France.”)

But what is different now is that the French Government publicly downplay their aggressive approach to Roma migration, as they realise it is a hot potato. Pierre Lellouche, France’s EU Affairs Minister, didn’t mention the Roma when he called for Romania and Bulgaria’s accession to the Schengen Treaty to be delayed.  He said “we have to be very vigilant” about allowing Romania and Bulgaria “automatic enlargement” considering their poor record on corruption and border security.  Needless to say he made no mention of the billion Euro contract that was awarded to the French/German defence company EADS some years go – for strengthening Romania’s border security.

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